Breathing life into a public library

Nayan Mehrotra

What memories/images come to your mind when you hear the words ‘public library’? For some, it’s a treasure of knowledge they can access freely, for some others, it’s a space they can find solace amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life, and for the rest, it’s just a name because they have never visited the place. I wondered why these spaces, which are called ‘public’, are not so common amongst the public and are they or are they not within the public’s reach?

Public libraries have been set up to provide people access to knowledge and resources. In the present times, however, a peek into a public library reveals that it is mostly used by people who are preparing for competitive examinations, and therefore the treasure available in the form of a wide collection of books lies wasted in the shelves gathering dust. Due to this shift, the children’s section is also limited to just a few books, furniture and board games, with less focus on the joy of reading. What has impacted this kind of shift? Why do public libraries cater to only a few areas of engagement? In an attempt to understand the reason behind the current state of public libraries, the ways in which the space can be made vibrant, and to encourage and welcome children to read, I conducted my field project, as part of the Library Educators Certificate course offered by Bookworm, in a public library in a city of Rajasthan.

Through this field project, I hoped to understand more about the openness of public libraries, the role a librarian plays and how even small efforts can change the way children see and experience the library space.

Public library as an open space
The day-to-day functioning of the library and the process of becoming a member and borrowing books make it challenging to openly access resources. While the vision in the policies of public libraries has stayed the same, in practice it has changed over time. The day-to-day functioning of the library needs to be reconnected with its vision because only if one has clarity of vision, then one can plan to bring about a change. In the absence of a vision, the mandatory work gets done, but the core gets neglected or goes unnoticed.

Public libraries are supposed to be spaces which are open for all, irrespective of their background, but this ‘openness’ also has many terms and conditions. This lack of openness can be experienced in the process of becoming a member, in borrowing books from the library, the location of the library, the display of books, lack of outreach programs, and attitude of the librarian, to name a few. For example, getting a membership requires a character certificate signed by a gazetted officer; issuing books, which are hard to find in the first place, due to lack of organization, or just the frown that seems to be perpetually on the faces of the library staff. The common man has been pushed out from the library systematically.

When I was conducting sessions in the public library, the librarian tried to restrict the entry of non-registered members, and finally locked the books afraid that they would get lost. What is a library without books? Who are these books for? When I began planning sessions in the public library, I thought of using books from the library. The aim behind that was to make use of the library resources, so that even when children come after my field project is completed, they can browse through the books and borrow them. I also felt that involving the librarian was critical here, as I hoped she could also guide the children once I had finished my sessions.

However, this did not happen as there are many reasons which are beyond the librarian and are systemic that affect the free use of books, fine on late return, charging double the amount in case of loss, rigid processes of audit and inventory. All of this adds up to limiting the reach of the library and often driving away many of the users.

Role of the librarian
I feel that if a librarian is able to ignite the reading spark in children then he or she not only ensures the upbringing of a generation of readers, but also makes the space alive and vibrant.

During the field project, I realized how important the role of the librarian is and in the public library to what extent this role is being neglected/ignored. Additionally, there is a negative image of a ‘library’ that gets built among people, and sadly it is being reinforced by the librarian/library staff, which is keeping people away from the library space.

I learnt that a library is not just made up of space, books and the librarian, but it’s about how one makes use of the books, space and the opportunity. For example, when I conducted sessions in the public library, I tried to involve the librarian in activities that focused on reading different books and critically reflecting on stories with the help of a few questions. The book reading was triggered by different activities like treasure hunt, snakes and ladders, which worked marvellously to bring the space alive, arouse interest in reading and in bringing everyone together.

I could also see the stark difference in the atmosphere of the library during my sessions as compared to when I was entering or leaving the place. This convinced me that the librarian plays an important role in engaging users with different kinds of books and in initiating discussions on various issues. I feel that to execute this role, it just requires a librarian to be open-minded and welcoming. This, combined with an understanding of library practices, can transform the space. It can be done and we can do it.

Ways of engaging children
In order to transform the library from just a transactional place to a welcoming space of discovery and serendipity, the sessions were planned carefully to engage children in reading and to involve and hopefully inspire the librarian. Activities like treasure hunt, musical chairs, book bingo and guided drawing were able to get the children involved in reading and also helped them connect with space.

A few interactive displays were created to attract and engage parents who sat for the sessions. The parents found them creative and an interesting way of engagement while they waited for their children. This made me feel that if we keep something for parents to read and engage in, then it motivates them also to come to the library. If we wish to make the space open, vibrant, inclusive and welcoming, then there is no limit to what and how much we can explore and execute.

Through my small intervention in the public library space, I learnt that there is no single factor which hampers the growth and popularity of the public library, rather it is a multi-fold serious systemic issue. On the flipside, a library cannot be rejuvenated by working on just a single facet, and one person cannot bring about the shift. The community as a whole needs to come together, collaborate and build networks, join hands and revive such spaces to make them alive, powerful and open spaces for everyone.

The author is a library educator whose exposure to libraries made her realize the importance of libraries and possibilities they offer. She has done the Library Educator’s Course from Bookworm, Goa and is currently working with Bookworm as part of Professional Development and Libraries in Schools Program. She can be reached at [email protected].

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